The construction of a highly controversial new Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem has been delayed "until further notice" on environmental grounds, the municipality announced Monday, effectively pushing it back by at least a year.
The decision follows a phone call U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made to Israel's Prime Minister Naftali Bennett last week over the plan, which officials described as "intense."
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The plan includes a neighborhood of some 9,000 housing units for the ultra-Orthodox community. If established, it would be the first large Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem since Har Homa in the 1990s.
However, at the hearing on Sunday, the possibility of initially promoting a more limited plan was discussed. This plan would encompass 1,700 housing units in the planned neighborhood's eastern part.
The Jerusalem district committee for planning and construction accepted the position of the environmental protection and health ministries, saying that a survey on the plan's environmental impact is needed prior to approval.
This is due to the area, the defunct Atarot airfield, already suffering from air, soil and noise pollution hazards. The survey is expected to take a year to complete.
Diplomatic sources clarified that the delay of construction is purely a technical matter and that there were no covert efforts to stop the committee hearing today by the U.S.
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Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Freige of the Meretz party spoke before the committee and requested that the plan be rejected in favor of reestablishing the defunct airport as an Israeli-Palestinian collaboration. The committee rejected this proposal.
The Israeli Planning Administration said in a statement that after examination, they believe the plan makes proper use of unused land reserves through the application of mixed-use development – an urban planning style which finds various uses for a public space. The statement added that "After hearing the representative of the Environmental Protection Ministry, the committee finds that an environmental impact survey must be prepared as is standard practice."
While a formal Israeli readout of the Blinken-Bennett call widely focused on the portion of the conversation surrounding the Iran nuclear deal, the State Department readout clarified that Blinken "strongly emphasized" that Israel should refrain from unilateral actions that exacerbate tensions and undercut efforts to advance a negotiated two-state solution, "including advancing settlement activity."
The Biden administration has grown steadily more emboldened in criticizing the Israeli government for construction plans in the West Bank and East Jerusalem – including through public readouts, phone calls to senior Israeli officials and statements delivered at the United Nations.
Last month, Israeli officials told the Biden administration that plans for a new Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem will not be approved for another year, after U.S. officials expressed their concern over a municipal board decision to approve the construction in Atarot.
This area of the abandoned Atarot airport, located between Jerusalem and Ramallah, was originally intended to be transferred to the Palestinians as was agreed in previous peace talks, and rests on the grounds of a defunct regional airport in the northern part of Jerusalem, which was annexed by Israel in June 1967.